Observations of an Author: Why ERB did not Change
David Bruce Bozarth
Copyright © 2003
Observed a mosquito hawk (benefical insect that looks like a mosquito but is about twelve times larger--not a dragonfly) struggling to shed the strands of a spider's web it had escaped over an open pool of water. The broken strands holding that determined creature dipped into the surface of the pool and a struggle for life ensued. The hawk did not give up.
Sadly, I could not help the hawk because it is such a fragile creature. Anything I could offer would injure it. I watched with interest, cheering as it almost raised the damp strands of spider silk dragging through the water. Minutes passed! The mosquito hawk eventually escaped drowning, but was still linked to the pond by the threads of the spider silk.
Such a tiny creature, so determined! And yet, the hawk did find a rock where it might land. Hooray! But there was the drag of the spider silk soaked in water. The hawk still lived, but could not rise. The hawk could not change direction. The hawk eventually perished at the water's edge. The hawk did not drown, the hawk was not consumed by fowl or fish, but the hawk perished, alone.
Waxing poetic, I know, but waxing real life as well. My mosquito hawk was in peril. It did not give up. It worked at survival until it died and there was nothing I could do to save it.
Burroughs went through the same spider silk...especially during his Hawaiian years between Correspondent flights and tours on ships. All aspects are tied to one presentation, but struggling to go in different directions--to escape into profit, to survive! Unfortunately Burroughs was dragged back to one path. Painfully. There were no markets.
Bereft of the Honolulu newspaper he lost early during WWII, then his correspondence of the war also cut short, and his need to deal with a marriage second gone south, Burroughs wrote Tarzan and "the Foreign Legion."
Tarzan and "the Foreign Legion", a struggle against all odds where not only nature but man was a danger.
The mosquito hawk with strands of spider silk trailing and caught in a pool of water. The hawk alive! The hawk striving! The hawk at rest. The hawk dying. ERB relaxes, not by choice, but in real life after 1944. Dies in 1950. Canaveral prints...too few copies and crappy to boot. What is the turning point is when the ERB reprint paperback book appeared. The hawk soaring!
I did try to save the mosquito hawk. Caught between the water, the silk, and my gentle handing. The creature died no matter what I did.
Burroughs couldn't change. He even tried to change. Failed to change no matter what. I now understand why ERB's "formula" is something more than a formula. The "litrachoor" that ERB wrote has a similar voice from beginning to end regardless of experiment or change in words used to complete any manuscript for a very simple reason. Belatedly, forehead must be smacked by hand and the "duh!" uttered when realization sets in. Why I have been so dense in this understanding regarding ERB? I have recognized it over and over in other authors. That I missed something SO OBVIOUS the first time around is also understandable. Why? A personal and deep affection for anything that ERB wrote and memories of the childhood when I read these stories. But even the child must grow up eventually, even the one we keep nearest and dearest to our hearts.
ERB knew only one way to write. His character dynamics had a general pattern. The threats and resolutions had one directive. Delineations of Theme and Twists had a common similarity. Time after time, again and again, infinity of similarity repeated regardless of window dressing. This is not a bad thing. The One Trick Pony ridden is a neat trick, particularly if the riders like the trick! Many millions of readers world-wide rode that pony for entertainment and, in later years, a cadre of fans and pseudo-scholars would explore the details and write extraordinarily upon those, and yet fail to see the generalization.
The epiphany Tangor has recognized--and of course this is a personal insight that does not include all of you, but perhaps most of you willing to see it: all authors have ONE VOICE, ONE STORY, ONE CREATIVE DIRECTION that might be revisited multiple times if they write more than one story. While considering a revamp of the Tangor Pastiche and Original Fan Fic website I looked once again upon the 50 or so offerings currently listed and noticed a few things, particularly among the authors with more than one story.
Perhaps it is not the story that captures our attention. Perhaps what brings us back to an author is the comfort of that voice, the difference of that voice over all the other voices out there. Each author has a voice and usually has it for all of their career whether that career is professional or fan fic. One voice.
Some voices are distinctive and appeal to many: Orson Welles, for example, was as popular a voice in RADIO as ERB was in the pulps. Tangor has one voice, no matter what window dressing is applied. Gridley has the same "problem" as well as Barney. What I saw on the fan fic site made me take a look at the rest of my work which is NOT available to the public at large. Looking at my work since 1964 and reading only the last page of each story I have a new understanding of ERB because Tangor Has A Formula! All of a sudden "formula" writing seems to have a different meaning!
Gridley and Nkima early on recognized the Tangor voice in their reviews/commentaries of DBB stories. "Darker," "more sexual," "deeper themes,", "more violent and tragic." Someone (I can't recall who at this time) also said "more humorous." All of the comments above were expressed in relation to ERB, as they should have been since stories reviewed were ERB-esque pastiches. And the comments have been consistent since the first Tangor pastiche was published on the Internet. That consistency, and my belated realization I am really only a One Trick Pony is illuminating. Like that old leopard I can't change my spots, so why the heck should we be disappointed that ERB never changed his spots? The reality is that stories cannot be divorced from the author, nor the author divorced from the works. The production of the author simply IS WHAT IS. And that, dear readers, is all there is to know as far as THIS writer is concerned.
I'm not going to change the way I write things. No great leap is required to realize ERB never considered changing the way he wrote. There is great comfort in knowing that a voice is consistent--and if that voice is labeled as "formulaic" so be it.
Vocabulary can change but the internals, the plot, the characterizations, or the narrative style are unique to each author. ERB did not "fail" in the 1940s--he had slimed down, trimmed down, picked up a few street words, but was still the same old storyteller he was in 1911. A voice perfected with experience. Sadly, however, ERB had become a voice that had to compete with new voices which appealed to a public who did not listen the same way as before because THEIR lives had changed.
We all might wish to rethink how we view ERB over the years. Did he change, or DID THE READERS CHANGE? I suggest the latter.
Most of you know my life has been... er ... less than happy in recent months so it might not be a surprise that I played hooky last week and treated myself to a day of fishing for the first time in 18 years.
Imagine my surprise public fishing is not allowed at the 50/90a bridge over the Brazos River so I lurked the back roads at 60mph until I ended up at Freeport. Caught two sharks, both eating size. One was 18" the other was 3-1/2 feet. I was not on a hunting expedition. The little shark was easy to unhook. The larger shark was released with pliers and my not inconsiderable weight holding the critter down while avoiding teeth!
The Tarzan reference? In the bait shop (where I bought a license to fish) was a small display of TARZAN LURES. I did not bother to buy one of these six or seven atrocities which were constructed of a standard gummy worm mated to a "feather", a 1 ounce lead weight, a 12" steel leader and a 1/2" spoon. "Gurranteed to catc fish." (sic)
Investigating the obviously home computer printed tag I determined these lures were produced locally. Asking about the lures to the sales lady at the counter I learned her son made them.
"Tarzan?" I asked.
"Mighty hunter, Rich says."
"Read the Tarzan books?"
"Lives them. I have to buy new copies from time to time. He's been in a wheelchair since 1987."
"Sorry to hear that. What happened?"
The computer link to Texas Parks and Wildlife was misbehaving. She took a drag off her unfiltered cigarette and replied. "That ugly time when the Vietnamese moved in. Shrimping."
"Took a baseball bat or something to the back one night and his spine was broke."
There wasn't much to say. The computer terminal began printing my license. "I talk to Burroughs' grandson from time to time," I said as I signed my debit card receipt.
I looked at the display of crappy lures and the homemade labels with the TARZAN LURES title. I could have warned her about the TRADEMARK etc and all that other legalese. Instead I asked:
"How's Rich doing?"
"Making do. Yes, sir?" she said to the next customer.
I picked up my license and went fishing.